Understanding the meaning of this phrase requires a socio-cultural incursion into kitchen protocol and culinary matters among the Igbo.
The kitchen is principally a woman’s domain where she queens it over her household through her culinary dexterity. Beyond that, her resource control and management capabilities are tasked and celebrated by her authority over her kitchen space and allied matters. Traditionally, the Oga of the house is provider; Madam is sole determiner of what he gets to eat out of his sweat. Where food ensures health of the family and exhibits the financial muscle of the provider, Ofe is the cynosure and prime factor in daily exhibition at the dining table.
Ofe is soup. Soup that, as we say, a woman has cooked with washed hands in her own soup pot. Ofe is prime evidence of the creative ability of a woman in the kitchen. It is often a concoction of wholesome ingredients ranging from meat, fish, herbs, spices, vegetables and Mama’s turn of hand. Understandably, only a woman has authority over her pot of soup (except where she delegates to another woman, for some reason) as the soup pot signifies a woman’s sovereignty over her household. Indeed, it is akin to her portion of the matrimonial bed. Furthermore, every self- respecting man in our traditional patriarchal societies subscribes to the unwritten domestic code of conduct by staying very far away from the soup pot controversy as it is unheard of that a man scooped soup from either his mother’s or his wife’s soup pot to appease the gods of hunger, no matter how severe the pangs. A man worthy of that self-glorifying title leaves such domestic arrangements to his womenfolk. A man waits to be served and waited upon while he savours his meal. Domestic world wars have been known to have been fought over soup pot violation but that’s another day’s story. So also is the modern reality of kitchen invasion by professional chefs, most of them, male. Perhaps a case of what the women can do, the men can do better?
In a woman’s soup pot, venison is king. In venison procurement challenged environment, animals bigger than the squirrel are communally consumed with designated portions going to specific individuals and groups. As is often the case, children are not specifically factored into the sharing formula; being adult kindness dependent for what eventually comes to them when shared venison is brought home and cooked in Mama’s soup pot. It is culturally panned out, therefore, that when elders have been served and are eating the tasty meals, they must exhibit control over their taste buds, their greed and their stomach satisfaction quotient by leaving something in the bowl for the children who will clean and wash up after them. The society expects it, the children (read vulnerable group) in their insignificant position on the social ladder, exert moral pressure on compliance and fulfilment of this social contract from adults and elders.
No matter how plenteous the provision, a good kitchen resources manager never, ever, dishes out all of her soup pot at one serving. Soup is meant to be managed; a visible evidence of home management. While the remaining portion is not for any specific individual, it is a form of emergency reserve resource that speaks of traditional hospitality that presents “something” to any visitor or the ash bottomed pauper who truly has nothing to eat. Ordinarily, therefore, a cultured guest is not supposed to ask for more soup serving even when faced with pounded yam of the proportions made famous by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart. Don’t worry about it, women “just know” the right portion of soup for that quantity of “swallow.” And so it is that much as women urge you to have some more, the rations are actually spoken for to go round the entire family, if you get my drift. Consequently, when a diner hefts all of that soup and asks for more, he is perceived as a spoiler of our culinary structure to household harmony. Hence, an Agadi (adult /elder) n’agwo (eats up /licks all) ofe (soup).
An Agadi n’agwo ofe is an elder misbehaving. He is an adult who should know better, ought to do better but deliberately subverts established system, often to perverted, selfish purpose. He is seen as a mischievous person that muddles up truth and set rules that ensure equity and fairness. Further, he is a dissembler of communal truths, consciously undermining social well- being and justice. Worse yet, an agadi n’agwo ofe has unsettling propensity for spoliation of communal ethos.
Traditionally, we are socialized to run an open kitchen door policy where everyone is welcome. The expectation is that the food may run low but never out. Hence, the social ranking of a family is easily measured by the availability of food for the have-nots and generosity of the heart in sharing with them. By his greed and self-centeredness, an agadi n’agwo ofe dents this cultivated kindness and pauperizes collective image. Conversely, he promotes destructive individualism captured as “Chop alone, die alone” syndrome, in today’s street parlance.
Like all good living beings and words, the phrase has morphed its application and social location from kitchen to “the other room”. In some extended instances therefore, the term has been applied to paedophiles and cougars, adults preying on innocent vulnerables for selfish gratification. Agadi n’agwo ofe!!!